Steal Something from Work Day 2013


To celebrate this year’s Steal Something from Work Day, we present a critical essay on the possibilities and limitations of stealing time at work as a revolutionary practice. Our contributor is one of the countless grad students who have better odds of participating in an anarchist revolution than landing a tenure track position. Like anything stolen from work, this text bears the imprint of the context in which it was created—yet hints at what it will take to abolish that context. Thieves of time, one more effort to steal back the world!

Meanwhile: Steal Something from Work Day auf Deutsch.

A Theft or Work?

Why Steal Something from Work Day Means Burn Down the Internet

La Perruque, “the Wig”

It is impossible to steal from work. If you are at work, you are either an employee or a boss, or else both. A boss cannot steal from work because he or she already owns the apparatus of production; an employee cannot steal from work because working means being part of that apparatus. If I get away with it, the staplers and printer cartridges my bag are just a category mistake, a peculiar misgrouping of my little hands with other company property. If I don’t, they are a trail of evidence proving that I was never really an employee.

The labor of workplace theft is a ruse, but the ruse rouses. The soul is an engine calibrated for pursuing the impossible: as long as capitalism makes equipment out of people, people will make off with equipment. This is a sign of life. The question is how the ruse relates to capitalism, how capitalism absorbs and reverses it, and whether the ruse can help us to abolish capitalism.

Let’s begin with the labor of stealing back your time, if only because that may be your primary workplace activity. Michel de Certeau, a hybrid Marxist/Jesuit philosopher of language whose specialties included May ‘68 and late-medieval demon possession, discusses this in The Practice of Everyday Life:

Take, for example, what in France is called la perruque, “the wig.” La perruque is the worker’s own work disguised as work for his employer. It differs from pilfering in that nothing of material value is stolen. It differs from absenteeism in that the worker is officially on the job. La perruque may be as simple a matter as a secretary’s writing a love letter on “company time” or as complex as a cabinet maker’s “borrowing” a lathe to make a piece of furniture for his living room.

Trickery and Domination

For de Certeau, la perruque is exemplary of “tactics,” as opposed to “strategy.” The difference between the two is central to his analysis of how power functions everywhere from the factory and the kitchen to language itself:

Strategies are able to produce, tabulate, and impose these spaces… whereas tactics can only use, manipulate, and divert these spaces.

His basic insight will be as familiar to dishwashers lolling in the locker room as to conspirators planning revolutions:

The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power. It does not have the means to keep to itself, at a distance, in a position of withdrawal, foresight, and self-collection: it is a maneuver “within the enemy’s field of vision,” … and within enemy territory. It does not, therefore, have the options of planning general strategy and viewing the adversary as a whole within a distinct, visible, and objectifiable space. It operates in isolated actions, blow by blow.

Since de Certeau was writing in the 1980s, computers have rapidly replaced both letters and lathes in our workplaces. Digital spaces may operate differently than the ones he was examining. Yet the problem is not just that de Certeau was writing thirty years ago, but that he presumed an eternal present. The space of tactics, he says,

takes advantage of “opportunities” and depends on them, being without any base where it could stockpile its winnings, build up its own position, and plan raids. What it wins it cannot keep. This nowhere gives a tactic mobility, to be sure, but a mobility that must accept the chance offerings of the moment, and seize on the wing the possibilities that offer themselves at any given moment.

The subject of de Certeau’s analysis turns the “actual order of things” to his or her “own ends, without any illusion that it will change any time soon.” And de Certeau seems to agree: tactics can evade, subvert, and defy structures, but not destroy them. De Certeau sounds like King Solomon in Ecclesiastes 2:18-26, presenting a work/play dialectic in a closed and unchangeable universe. As far as de Certeau can see, free moments are free, but they are doomed to remain forever transitory: born to lose. Vanity of vanity, nothing is new under the sun.

For worker/theorists who both enjoy the ruse of workplace theft and refuse a “realism” that cannot envision the abolition of the workplace, is there any way to retain de Certeau’s insights without his assumption of a static universe? He is, after all, a fine theorist of secret games like ours.

Or, to use de Certeau’s metaphor, though our tactic is inevitably immersed in and permeated by its surroundings, can we insinuate ourselves like worms into a place from which la perruque could constitute revolutionary sabotage?

Can the Master’s Degree Dismantle the Master’s House?

A good Jesuit, de Certeau flourishes a mind like a filigree of silver: he is refined toward ornate visionary practice and ordered instruction. To be crude, he’s a fancy poststructuralist academic, and he concisely presents the ethos of the well-meaning academic leftist:

If one does not expect a revolution to transform the laws of history, how is it possible to foil here and now the social hierarchization which organizes scientific work on popular cultures and repeats itself in that work? The resurgence of “popular” practices within industrial and scientific modernity indicates the paths that might be taken by a transformation of the object of our study and the place from which we study it.

He presents the academy as a place where la perruque can have different effects, precisely because, in a regime grounded in science, the university is the factory that produces the systems of control:

Let us try to make a perruque in the economic system whose rules and hierarchies are repeated, as always, in scientific institutions. In the area of scientific research (which defines the current order of knowledge), working with its machines and making use of its scraps, we can divert the time owed to the institution.

So here we have the Poststructuralist Battle Plan:

1) Gain access to the means of academic production; 2) Escape the space of strategy by situating oneself as a thief; 3) ???? 4) Prophet.

De Certeau claims that as (social) scientists, academics can make clandestine use of science, the means by which everyday life is produced, and thus undermine the structural difference between the theoretical remove of strategy and the immersed immediacy of tactics. It sounds so tantalizingly like sabotage that even those who dream of “a revolution to transform the laws of history” could see the value of pursuing an MA in Poststructural Theory.

If shops have lathes, what could we use at a university? Funding, projectors, libraries, food, photocopiers, scanners, USB voice recorders, staplers… bricks and ivy! The academy is an armory waiting to be raided.

But we should be suspicious of this plan because the most expensive piece of academic machinery is the well-exercised brain. A stapler can be removed from its post, but prying your brain loose from the system in which you have immersed it is something else entirely. You never actually arrive at the moment when you have just stolen a graduate-student brain. The moment, instead, is always either the discovery that this was not in fact a graduate student brain, but the brain of an unemployed writer with an unpalatably narrow range of expertise, or the expansion of the academy to incorporate a range of once-threatening ideas.

Ethnographically, de Certeau’s plan is unconvincing for other reasons. The college town in which I write has a healthy infoshop, still selling shirts announcing the now departed presence of the 99% movement, and continuing to engineer tactics against ecocide, homophobia, and other contemporary faces of hierarchy. But neither that shop, nor that fleeting movement, nor the tactics that flow through it are significantly enhanced by the thousands of college students a few blocks away. The marks of la perruque are all over the classroom—professors and students working to use the academic machinery against itself and other hierarchical structures. Personally, I have both taught and attended courses that teach potent radical texts. Students who get high marks for understanding Marx, Bakunin, Fanon, Debord, and Solanas are no more likely than anyone else to engage in the struggles those texts endorse.

The university seems to be a machine that provokes people to commit a perruque in which they redirect their attention to structural inequalities, then neutralizes this by means of a flood of relativizing information. The now-harmless critique is administered to classrooms as a sort of vaccine against outbreaks of mobilizing rage, while technologies of cathartic distraction (beer, usually, with or without basketball) expel the remainder safely from the system.

And if you leave, it only gets worse: I have spent full years of what I occasionally pass off as an academic life diverting my energy and resources into sneakery and tactics. The university cannot be drained in this way.

Elsewhere, de Certeau seemed to understand this tendency of the university to reabsorb subversion quite well. He understands, for instance, that the historian “has recieved from society an exorcist’s task. He is asked to eliminate the danger of the other… ejecting those dangerous individuals from the social body, and keeping them temporarily or permanently isolated.” In observing how the student riots of 1968 were neutralized, de Certeau indicts the academy, and notes how the students in revolt were later decried for their limited vocabulary of “two dozen words” like “consumer society,” “repression,” and “contestation.” Good words, but the University will demand that you use so many words that they cannot be used for anything in particular.

There was a graduate student from the anthropology department, a self-described Marxist, who came frequently to our Occupy encampment. He would tell us that if we really wanted to change things we would go home and read more theory.

This is not a diploma

100% Time

So la perruque of writing about la perruque doesn’t constitute sabotage. Yet the problem is not the academy. De Certeau is right in asserting that nearly everyone sneaks time from work to do their own projects, even if they are being watched. But somehow millions of people running errands in company cars, making snacks from spare ingredients, and sexting while “on the clock” have failed to abolish capitalism.

Every workplace has two reflexes that work to prevent la perruque from damaging the functioning of the system. Let’s call these reflexes release and recapture.

Release is a simple reflex. In the academy, it takes the form of scheduled forgetting, and in most non-academic jobs it is described poetically as “the blind eye.” La perruque is simply forgotten so the system can continue as it was before. Jobs that can be done by machines already are, so the remaining jobs must accommodate the fact that humans require play. Play: that is, a space of free movement so the system can adjust to inevitable tiny changes without shattering. A gear also requires play; humans just require more play than gears, and tend to fracture more dramatically when they are not provided with it. This should not be mistaken for freedom any more than the fact that skyscrapers sway from side to side in the wind should be mistaken for a “small victory” for the forces of horizontal movement.

Recapture is a more complex reflex, and while it is ancient, it seems to be becoming more important these days. We can see historical traces of recapture, for instance, where certain pre-existing facets of slave religions have been nurtured by masters in order to promote docility. Let’s consider how recapture relates to la perruque.

In 1948, the corporation 3M began encouraging employees to use 15% of work time to do any project they want, so long as it ultimately benefited 3M. It was in this creative space that a 3M employee invented the Post-it note, making the corporation countless millions. Today, Google encourages its employees to spend 20% of their time thus; that recapture of free time created gmail.

The nightmare capitalism of the future will consist only of “100% Time,” constant freedom under total capture.

Or maybe that future is already here. Consider your own recent moments of la perruque. What were you doing? Think hard, because some of your favorite activities may have been designed to leave no harsh mnemonic trace. Were you fiddling around online?

Workers who engage in tactics of la perruque, but use the reclaimed hours to participate in a digital capitalism that commodifies user attention, merely sneak from one job to do another. In 2013, we call it “social media”—in thirty years, it will have no name. Would that we had more lathes. Because we cannot build with computers, we ply games like Farmville or World of Warcraft, becoming background objects for other players; we add stars and comments to Amazon products improving their sales; we self-surveil with Facebook; and we help search engines anticipate human desires by performing as a human test audience for them.

Tactics are immanent, whereas strategy is transcendent, so la perruque is always a movement down and in. With “social media,” we have learned to enjoy the practice of fleeing from a larger job into a smaller one nested within it. Facebook’s interface is surprisingly honest: a sort of matryoshka doll that recedes deeper and deeper toward the ends of attention. Only on the middle level, where one gathers and becomes a sort of currency counted in “friends,” does this work comprise what Julian Assange has called the “most appalling spy machine that has ever been invented.” The smaller jobs of glancing at ads, which finances the appalling and pleasurable spy machine, are too small to remember. Imagine a book stamping on a human face forever.

As an aside, the video game industry is a phenomenally successful experiment in recapture by the military-industrial complex. Some argue that the first game was Tennis for Two (1958), created on a computer properly used to calculate missile trajectories, but most claim it was Spacewar! (1962), created by MIT’s military-funded computer labs and spread widely through the networked “ARPA community.” This military organization, famous for creating the Internet, spread Spacewar! as part of their general endorsement of “blue sky mode research”: they gave their employees nearly total freedom and funding, and fired them if they failed to produce lethal results. Perhaps in 1963, someone thought the proliferation of video games was too wasteful a perruque. But twenty years later, Ronald Regan revealed that the Air Force regarded Atari as military training for the masses: “Many young people have developed incredible hand, eye, and brain coordination in playing these games. The Air Force believes these kids will be our outstanding pilots should they fly our jets.”

It is has been a long recapture, but a successful one: 40 years after the release of Spacewar!, America’s Army became the name of both a murderous force of empire and the video game it uses as an official training and recruitment device.

The Potlatch: Destructive Gifts

What, then, can we do? Can any perruque oppose the regime of 100% Time?

De Certeau offers a hint. La perruque is

no doubt related to the potlatch described by Mauss, an interplay of voluntary allowances that counts on reciprocity and organizes a social network articulated by the “obligation to give.” … It survives in our economy, though on its margins or in its interstices. It is even developing, although held to be illegitimate, within modern market economy… the loss that was voluntary in a gift economy is transformed into a transgression in a profit economy: it appears as an excess (a waste), a challenge (a rejection of profit), or a crime (an attack on property).

Waste, challenge, and crime! This sounds quite like how we reclaim our time “on the clock,” but where does de Certeau find the “obligation to give” in la perruque? The love letter and the family furniture he mentioned in his first example sound generous, but certainly many forms of la perruque are like masturbation in employee bathrooms—unlike anything we would call “generosity.” Taking a closer look, we see that de Certeau is directing our attention to Marcel Mauss’s ethnographic conception of “the gift.”

Mauss hoped to use ethnography to show that capitalism is neither natural nor complete, that “Apparently there has never existed… anything that might resemble what is called a ‘natural economy,’” no matter how much capitalism asserts itself as a system of natural (that is, rational, or at least non-magical) exchange. One of his most powerful tools for this purpose was his analysis of the potlatch, a cycle of ritual gifting among the indigenous Kwakiutl people of the American Northwest. The principle was simple (more so in Mauss’s academic reduction, certainly, than in Kwakiutl reality): to receive a gift is to take on an obligation that must be paid with interest. So gifting spirals. We are weighed down by generosity, and collective efforts to relieve ourselves produce spirals of accelerating gifting. A madness of generosity.

It is not clear why de Certeau, writing in the 1980s, saw this in la perruque, but it should be familiar to anyone mired in Facebook. The gift of “friendship” is an obligation, as is Farmville manure, or mentions by friends. Social media is already a potlatch. We have created 100% Time by trying to rid ourselves of the curse of free time.

But Mauss’s description of the potlatch gives us one more hint:

In a certain number of cases, it is not even a question of giving and returning gifts, but of destroying, so as not to give the slightest hint of desiring your gift to be reciprocated. Whole boxes of olachen (candlefish) oil or whale oil are burnt, as are houses and thousands of blankets. The most valuable copper objects are broken and thrown in to the water, in order to put down and to ‘flatten’ one’s rival.

Recent historians have suggested that the potlatch only reached this immolative form when the Kwakiutl were confronted with the crisis of colonization. Previously, the spirals of gifting had been acquisitive rather than destructive. Perhaps this is true. And perhaps there is a kind of gift spiral that can only emerge in 100% Time, in which it will not be enough to waste the hours we reclaim, nor to share them, but within which a new relation to time must emerge. Perhaps in the furtive laboratories where tactics are invented, we are only now discovering a mode of laziness that manifests as revolutionary sabotage. Perhaps here can we finally put on la perruque to end all perruque.

“Perhaps not,” Alice cautiously replied: “but I know I have to beat time when I learn music.”

“Ah! that accounts for it,” said the Hatter. “He won’t stand beating.”